The Center for Neighborhood Technology and the Active Transportation Alliance’s campaign for a dedicated source of transit dollars in Cook County, Transit Future, is impressive in its scope and its ability to present a program of transit improvements with a realistic funding mechanism. It incorporates a variety of potential projects from the Red Line South extension to more ambitious projects like a Brown Line west extension. What I don’t like about it though is how much it (publicly) prioritizes rail lines over improvements at all levels. By that I mean buses.
What I like about LA’s transit system is how it has successfully created a brand to represent the four levels of bus services provided by LA Metro: Metro Liner (BRT), Metro Rapid (regular service express, limited buses), Metro Local (regular service local buses), and Metro Express (express buses). This is a model I would like to see employed in Chicago and combined with more modest rail investments compared to what is outlined in Transit Future.
Using CNT’s and Active Trans’ idea for a dedicated funding system, I think the CTA and Cook County could create such a system easily and rapidly. This, I think, would be a more impactful first step in dramatically improving travel times on transit (anywhere from 20%-50% decreases in trip times by some of my own estimates) and drawing more people onto transit, which in its own right is a key step to increasing transit mode share.
Doing so would require deciding on what such a bus system would look like.
I propose one with three levels of service: local service, ART (arterial rapid transit) like that proposed by Pace, and BRT and/or LRT (depending on the route).
Local service would run identically to what is provided now perhaps with some enhancements (better shelters or priority signaling at busy intersections). The ART routes would be like the type proposed by Pace. They would include priority signaling along the entire route (keeping lights green until buses pass), prepaid boarding when possible, bumped out stops (so buses don’t have to leave the main traffic lanes), fewer stops (every 1/4 mile versus every 1/8 mile like local bus routes), and high frequency all day long (every 10-12 minutes). BRT would be a step up from this including higher capacity buses, dedicated lanes, prepaid boarding at all stops, and even higher arrival frequency (every 7-10 minutes). In some cases light rail (LRT) could be developed instead of BRT, particularly on east-west routes, which aren’t as well-developed as north-south routes.
Fully building out an ART and BRT/LRT system at the scale I propose would cost on average $2.5 million per mile for ART, $33 million per mile for BRT, and $57 million per mile for LRT. Or, more specifically: $4 billion for 68 miles of LTR, $1 billion for 30 miles of BRT, and $450 million for 180 miles of ART. In total, this is about $5.5 billion in bus and arterial improvements.
Combined, additional rail projects (Yellow Line north extension, Orange Line south extension, Silver Line O’Hare-Midway, and Green Line east extension) cost cumulatively about $5 billion for 18 miles of new rail lines. Additionally, the conversion of the Metra Electric South Chicago and Blue Island Branches would add about $200 million to this total sum.
All together, this set of improvements costs roughly $10 billion, half of what the CNT/Active Trans Transit Future plan calls for. Part of this is because it cuts out a number of rail projects, such as the high-profile Red Line south extension (approximate cost $2 billion). These would be supplemented by better bus service, or specialized routes (such as a Devon Avenue special bus service to O’Hare). Another part of this is because Transit Future would (could?) include funding for projects like improvements to Union Station, which surely pushes up the official price estimates.
The Transit Future plan doesn’t discount the role of buses in creating a world-class transit system, but I do think it underplays that role. Look at London: buses in the British capital are just as important and iconic as the Tube, and if you’ve ever used them you know they’re efficient and vital for ensuring the efficient movement of people throughout the metropolis. That is why I do put an emphasis on arterial bus-based transit with some LRT; the majority of transit riders in Chicago take the bus and not the ‘L’ and thus it makes sense to look at how to improve how most riders get around and improve the services most residents have access to. Showiness can only go so far if people aren’t being served in real life.
It would also improve speeds throughout the entire transit system: an LRT on Western from Lincoln Square to the Western Orange Line would cut that trip almost in half end-to-end from 50 to 30 minutes. A BRT on Ashland Avenue from Irving Park Road to 95th Street would go from 1 hour, 45 minutes to an hour. Even a modest improvement such as making the Pulaski 58 bus an ART would cut the 16.5 mile trip from Peterson to 79th street from 1 hour, 50 minutes to 1 hour, 20 minutes.
Such changes are less likely to draw wide-eyed commentary, but they’re practical and would collectively represent a huge improvement in how people get around the city. They would make the transit network we already have a more reasonable option for more residents and hopefully act as a cheaper catalyst to bigger improvements.
The map attached shows what those improvements look like. This includes the above mentioned services, as well as what I called the Silver Line (an ‘L’ parallel to Cicero Avenue from O’Hare to Midway) and a western branch to the conversion of the Metra Electric to an ‘L’ service. The two branches of the Gold Line would be supplemented by the Metra Electric commuter service to University Park and South Shore Line to South Bend.